The collapse of East Germany does not mean that West Germans have won the argument, says novelist Ingo Schulze. It’s time for a new debate
East German writers are much in demand to take part in discussion groups on the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall. Until recently, however, I had a feeling that those who quizzed them on this subject were profoundly bored – that they could not help yawning at their own questions. At most, they gambled on eliciting some nice little personal anecdote (What were you doing on 9 November?). What disturbed me about the majority of these questions was how unpolitical they were –– as unpolitical as our politicians, who aspire to be one thing above all: managers. Lately, or so it seems to me, the questioners’ somnolence has dissipated. Instead, the debate is now dominated by indignation and impatience. One is tempted to rub one’s eyes and ask the following question: after 20 years, can we not simply exchange arguments and experiences, including experiences that are at odds with each other?
At the end of April, the likeable presenter of what is probably German television’s pre-eminent chat show plied her guests with the question: “Was the German Democratic Republic (GDR) a tyrannical regime?” When three of the four had eventually replied in the affirmative, she turned to the fourth and said: “Three down, one to go.” This duly extracted the same affirmation from him as well. I turned off the television, it was so intolerable. Sadly, however, the chat show continued in my head.
Can we not expect a public service television channel to attempt to discriminate? The more precisely we discriminate, the more we do justice to our world. The last time I was questioned as inquisitorially (I told the presenter in my head) was in the GDR. But even in the latter years of the GDR, people had got out of the habit of asking questions as simplistic as: ‘Are you for or against peace? In that case, why not become an officer in the National People’s Army?’
I further informed the presenter that my mother had taken me aback a few days earlier by telling me that her husband, my father, could have forbidden her to practise as a doctor had we lived in the West. I always knew that he would have preferred her to spend her days at home, but how could he have imposed such a ban? To my not inconsiderable surprise, it transpired that this was indeed legally possible in the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) until 1976. Am I no longer permitted to say that the GDR had better family law than in the West, better labour legislation including the right to employment, and that traffic offenders, burglars and murderers were prosecuted and punished much as they were in the West, except that the choice of an attorney did not depend on one’s wallet? The former Justice Minister, Herta Daübler-Gmelin (SPD), told me how hard she had fought in 1990 for the adoption of certain aspects of GDR criminal law. By saying these things, am I denying or relativising the Wall or political despotism, which also, of course, existed in the judicial sphere, and not in isolated cases alone? Must I deliver a wholesale condemnation of the GDR before I’m entitled to take part in the debate? Doesn’t it go without saying that one wishes to be as well-informed as possible about the past, whether in relation to the East or the West or the world as a whole?
The question of law is only one example. The same may be said of debates about industry, finance, the arts, the public health system, transport and agriculture. They all centre on today, on ‘victor status’. The West won because the East collapsed. Therefore, the East was wrong and the West right. Any ideas formerly tried out by the East are unacceptable in themselves because they derive “from the communists”, so nothing more need be said about them.
On the other hand, politicians are competing with one another in their references to the end of casino capitalism, or even to the end of capitalism itself. They rail in unison against the bankers and speculators who visited this crisis on us. I hold no brief for the bankers. They have served society ill, but the question is: did they break any laws, and, if so, which ones? As far as I know, no German banker has yet been indicted. What laws were passed in order to render such speculation impossible? I know of none. It is embarrassing when politicians indulge in vituperation and public appeals, but are unwilling to effect any genuine changes. A woman friend of mine put it like this: morality belongs in law, not appeals. In 2004, for example, hedge funds were sanctioned in Germany under an SPD-Green coalition. If they were sanctioned, they can also be prohibited. Based in the Cayman Islands, they pay no taxes, guarantee two-digit returns on capital, and operate all the more successfully the more people they put out of work. Why do we tolerate this?
The same goes for banks. If they make a profit, their directors and shareholders become wealthy – very wealthy indeed. In the event of bankruptcy, they continue to make millions as private individuals while the general population assumes liability for the billions that were lost. Government bail outs apply only to the top echelon; lower down the scale you have to sell your house or move out of your flat. As a citizen, I don’t need righteously indignant politicians; I need politicians who will prohibit such arrangements by law. But they don’t. Nationalisation? Expropriation? Even though the German constitution authorises those procedures, all one hears in Germany is: so you want a return to communism, do you? Be thankful you’re living in freedom at last! And that is supposed to clinch such arguments. This becomes particularly cynical when voiced by people who never had to risk a thing in order to do away with the communist system. Those who took to the streets of Leipzig on 9 October 1989 had no idea whether or when they would return home. After the Beijing massacre, there was no great likelihood that a peaceful revolution would succeed. Yet the West acts as if freedom were its gift to us — as if Helmut Kohl had driven through the Brandenburg Gate with a few jeeps and put the Stasi to flight. My problem is not the disappearance of the East, but the disappearance of the West — of a West with a human face.
In 1990, we missed a golden opportunity to reform the West as well. That year also marked a turning point insofar as, with the putative “end of history”, alternatives to the status quo were from then on regarded as consummated, proven to have failed or utopian. Social expenditure metamorphosed into cost factors and curbs on growth. The market became a sacred cow and privatisation an ideology. All that ran counter to the one true doctrine seemed discredited. Nothing mattered but growth, efficiency, share prices and shareholder value. Society became more polarised with every passing year. It was forgotten that freedom and equality are two demands of equal validity. Freedom without social justice is no freedom at all. Profits are privatised, losses nationalised.
The debate that was not held in 1990 could and should take place now. When is it sensible for the community to take charge of something itself because this is better for its citizens? And what, subject to certain regulations, should be left to the private sector? One could talk about the power industry, banking, public health, insurance, railways, education, postal services. And why not, too, about the arms and pharmaceutical industries? Why should a profitable business, which is not committed to making ever bigger profits, be bad for the community and bad for those in work? The ideology of privatisation has failed, even in Germany. Why isn’t the East getting back on its feet despite billions in subsidies? Why did it take until 2007 to regain the industrial output of 1989, which it will probably fall behind in the next few years?
Growth and the maximisation of profit, once regarded as divining rods capable of guiding us into the future, have had their day. Reports of climate change give us another five or ten years to apply the emergency brakes. While we strive to stimulate consumption, a billion people have insufficient food and no clean water. Which of our political parties launches its election campaigns promising to combat this situation firmly when in government? The internationalisation of the economy must be followed by the internationalisation of citizens, that is, of politics, so that nation states do not become the plaything of business concerns and speculators. Talking and arguing about 20 years of peaceful revolution also requires reflecting on the world today.
Translated by John Brownjohn
Ingo Schulze is a novelist and short story writer. He was born in Dresden. His books include Adam und Evelyn and Neue Leben (Berlin Verlag). He has won several international literary awards including the Grinzane Cavour. A shorter version of this article appeared in the German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung and Poland’s Gazeta Wyborcza